The Los Angeles Times - what local paper?

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When I was 10 years old living in Southern California in 1949, I sold newspapers on a street corner and hawked four Los Angeles newspapers - the two Hearst-owned rags, the Los Angeles Herald and the Los Angeles Examiner; the locally owned Los Angeles Daily News, and the Chandler family's Los Angeles Times.

My biggest seller was the Herald because it had several afternoon editions. The Times and Examiner were morning newspapers, usually delivered and read at home. Only intellects and liberals bothered with the afternoon Daily News. So the Herald was my bread-and-butter, filled with eye-catching headlines that you could shout out to grab a customer's attention, toss a paper and catch their dime.

So I loved the Herald because it got me closer to owning that baseball mitt I wanted so much.

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But my grandfather made it clear that while the Herald was OK for my business, the only real newspaper in town was the Los Angeles Times. It had weight. It had influence. It made or broke a politician or a business, it told you what you needed to know, it had power, it owned Los Angeles. Anybody who wanted to be anybody had better read the Times and pay attention to what it thought was important and why.

As I grew up and became a journalist myself, I realized that before Otis Chandler grabbed the Times by the neck and made it a truly great newspaper, it was really a miserable, chauvinistic, racist, sexist, biased, politically corrupt piece of media. The Herald was often more honest and far more enterprising in getting stories than its more valued morning counterpart. The Herald was eventually merged with the Examiner and then both newspapers died as one when the Times became increasingly dominant, ending up the only major Los Angeles newspaper to be published in the city.

But those lamenting that the Los Angeles Times will no longer be a local newspaper because the Chicago Tribune is planning to buy it, haven't been reading the paper over the last half century.

The truth is the Times was never really a local newspaper - unless the local news was of national importance. No matter how great a national newspaper it became because of its national and international reporting, it was never very good at covering local news. It never did hold a candle to the Herald's "Front Page" reporters who didn't rest until a story of city corruption was uncovered and printed.

If the Herald had not died, the infamous Los Angeles subway corruption would have never happened. The Times was asleep at the wheel when the people involved stole the city blind. If the Herald had not died, the police corruption now making headlines would have been exposed years ago. And there are dozens of stories that either never appeared or were buried in the zest of the Times to cover more-important stuff.

It isn't a coincidence that the Metro section of the Times has always been the least-read and thinnest section of the newspaper. There were bigger fish to fry. It isn't a coincidence that its continually experimental zone sections covering various parts of the metropolitan area were poorly supported both economically and editorially. The newspaper had more-important things on its mind.

If you wanted local news, you read one of the many community newspapers that struggle to survive throughout southern California, or the San Fernando Valley's Daily News, or The Orange County's Register, or one of the alternative papers that covered one or two important stories a week. Or you watched local TV news. And if you were African-American, or Hispanic, or Asian, you relied on ethnic newspapers or newsletters. Before 1970, if you were a person of color, the only time you were mentioned in the Times - and almost every other media - was if you committed a murder, a rape, or an equally atrocious crime. People of color were never considered news unless they damaged white people or their property - and that editorial attitude, while muted in recent decades, lasted into the 1980s.

The real danger of media mergers, such as the proposed Times-Tribune merger, is not that the individual newspapers will cease to do their job, but that too much power is being centralized in the hands of too few.

Any newspaper needs competition to do its best work. If there is no competition, laziness and carelessness set in. If you're not afraid another newspaper's reporter is going to scoop you, you tend to take things easier. You tend to miss things and not worry if you miss a story because you know your boss won't read it in another newspaper. The Times buried most of its metropolitan competition in Los Angeles years ago and has suffered for it. The Tribune purchase, if it goes through, won't change that situation and it probably won't change the Times much. It wouldn't be good for business to produce a newspaper that doesn't have national prestige.

I didn't cry much when I heard about the possible Times-Tribune merger. But I did cry about another merger decades ago when the snappy Herald merged with the Examiner, giving Los Angeles one less local newspaper. I cried for the lost sunset editions that would never again fill the city with stories and headlines that made Los Angeles come alive, that reminded us of how local newspapers could protect us from the excesses and corruption of our elected and appointed officials, our police, our business leaders, and often even ourselves. But, alas, Los Angeles hasn't had a local newspaper in years.

*Joe Saltzman, an award-winning journalist, was a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times for more than a decade. His wife, Barbara, was an editor at the Times for 22 years. He is now associate dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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